Green Book (2018)

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To be honest, I mainly took the time to watch Green Book because of the controversy surrounding its Best Picture award at the 2019 Oscars. Was it a racist “white savior” movie as many people on Twitter, from which I’m now permanently banned for opposing the right wing coup in Venezuela, have accused it? Or was it closer to what Hiram Lee and Andre Damon at the World Socialist Website argue, a great humanistic film about interracial brotherhood targeted by the race baiting liberal bourgeoisie for getting too close to the truth?

Green Book stars Mahershala Ali as the African American classical and jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortenson as Frank Anthony Vallelonga, a working class Italian American who acted as his chauffeur and bodyguard through what was, back in the early 1960s, an extraordinarily dangerous tour through the deep south.  Shirley is refined, well-educated, a genuinely great artist, but also a closeted homosexual and alcoholic, unable to express his true sexuality, connect with most African Americans, or live up to his full potential as a concert pianist. Vallelonga is basically a minor Sopranos character, a colorful blue-collar slob who tells jokes and beats people up. During their two month road trip, Vallelonga teaches Shirley how to loosen up and enjoy life. Shirley teaches Vallelonga how to write more attentive letters to his wife, and get over the idea that you can solve every problem with a good right hook. That’s about it.

I understand the objections to Green Book that some black commentators have made. Black musicians in the 1950s and 1960s were regularly cheated out of royalties by corrupt record companies, who were not above using the mafia to intimidate would be dissidents. Green Book completely whitewashes this history. There’s a running feud between Vallelonga and Shirley’s family, which has never been quite resolved, and which the film dismisses as the vindictive grievance of one estranged brother. The  scenes where Vallelonga teaches Shirley how to eat fried chicken or recognize Aretha Franklin and Little Richard on the radio are quite simply eye rolling. The “Green Book” of the film’s title, a guide book in the 1950s and 1960s which informed African Americans which businesses in the Jim Crow South it was safe to patronize, barely comes into play at all. Shirley stays at only one, segregated “colored only” hotel, where he’s completely unable to socialize with its largely working class, black clientele. For the most part, he and Vallelonga patronize largely white establishments.

I don’t find the World Socialist Website’s defense of the film particularly convincing. Hiram Lee and Andre Damon argue that the film demonstrates how “racial prejudice is a social problem that can be solved through education, reason and empathy, and that racial hatred is not an essential component of the human condition.” For the most part it doesn’t. Except for one early scene involving two African American repairmen and a pair of drinking glasses, Vallelonga shows little sign of bias against black people or gay men. In fact, until the very end, he connects with working-class black people far more easily than Shirley does. The racists in Green Book are largely two dimensional southerners who hate Italian Americans almost as much as they hate blacks. Except for one scene involving a university custodian in southern Indiana, which is really part of the south anyway, white supremacy is presented as an almost exclusively southern problem. Vallelonga and Shirley realize they’re back in the enlightened north when a Jersey police officer stops them, not to engage in the racist harassment they experienced in Mississippi, but to warn them about how they had a flat tire.

Green Book’s simplistic narrative of a crude but basically enlightened New York Italian American protecting a sensitive black artist against racist southern WASPs even leads to one egregious historical error. Towards the end of the film, Vallelonga and Shirley find themselves in jail because they take a wrong turn off the main road into a “sundown town,” a place where blacks were prevented by informal agreements between white elites and local police forces from being inside the city limits after dark. But Sundown Towns, as James W. Loewen would argue, were not a southern phenomena at all, but mainly confined to the Northeast and Midwest. The South which had codified legal segregation, had no need of them. You were far likely to find them in Fairfield County, Connecticut or suburban Philadelphia than you were in Mississippi.

Nevertheless, unlike the 2005 abomination Crash, Green Book does have a few things that make it worth seeing. Ali and Mortenson are both excellent actors, have a genuine chemistry, and good comic timing. Ali’s portrayal of a socially isolated, closeted gay man, living in agony behind his well-constructed, dignified facade is, at times, genuinely affecting. The final sequence, which shows how easily southern “graciousness” can degenerate into racist bile, and where Shirley, after refusing to perform at a segregated restaurant, finally gets to play Chopin in an African American bar, is excellent. A passionate interpretation of the 25th, “Winter Wind,” Étude, one of the most difficult pieces in all of classical music, expresses the full range of Shirley’s emotions, the misery of repression and self-denial, and the joy of rebellion, in only a few minutes. Somehow, in its closing scenes, this formulaic, feel-good Hollywood liberal movie manages to express the transformation of a virtuoso performer into a genuine artist. The first 120 minutes may have been all about a minor Sopranos character but the last 5 belong to Shirley himself.

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